If the fact that X-Men is the second post in this series confuses you, check this post out.
In the late 1999’s, Superhero movies weren’t doing so well. It’s hard to imagine now, but the infamously bad Batman and Robin (1997) nearly killed the genre. However, Fox’s X-Men movie began its preliminary development before that disaster released. Having spent a fair amount of money on the license, they made sure to release the movie anyway. Just on a noticeably smaller budget than most superhero movies at the time.
In my Generation X post, I mentioned how Marvel wasn’t doing very well financially during the mid-90’s. But to say that it’s the first time Marvel sold the rights to an X-Men movie would either be a lie, or very bad research. They actually negotiated movie rights several times before Fox ended up with them. And in my opinion, some of their earlier deals sounded better than what we ended up with. They first wrote a script for Orion Pictures way back in 1984, but development stalled when Orion faced financial problems. Next up came a potential deal with Carolco Pictures. That studio found massive success with the likes of Terminator 2, the first three Rambo movies and Total Recall. James Cameron would produce the movie, with then wife Kathryn Bigalow directing.
That version of the movie sounded kind of awesome. It helped that Bob Hoskins was in talks to play Wolverine and Angela Bassett as Storm. Personally I think Bassett would have made a better Storm than the actress we’d eventually get, and while Hugh Jackman is legendary as Wolverine, Hoskins could have pulled off Wolverine’s gruff nature. But after James Cameron became more interested in Spider-Man and Carolco started struggling (they eventually went bankrupt thanks to mega bombs like Cutthroat Island and Showgirls), the rights reverted back to Marvel.
Meanwhile, 20th Century Fox’s involvement with the 90’s X-Men cartoon convinced them to enter talks into a movie deal. The initial script sounds like a bit of a mess. It had Magneto, along with Sabretooth, Toad, Juggernaut and Blob all trying to conquer New York, with Sentinels, Bolivar Trask, Henry Peter Gyrick, and all of those names are major villains in the X-Men franchise. There would also be a rivalry between Wolverine and Cyclops, Cyclops’s personal doubts as a squad leader and a backstory where Magneto was responsible for the Chernobyl disaster. How could anyone possibly pack all that into one movie without releasing a complete and utter mess?
In addition to many rewrites that I won’t detail too much (seriously though, look it up if you’re interested), there were multiple directors considered for the movie. Robert Rodrigues turned down the offer to direct. Brett Ratner was considered as the director for a time, and we would eventually learn how that would turn out. In December of 1996, they ended up choosing Bryan Singer.
Probably the most interesting thing about the movie’s creation is the search for Wolverine’s actor. It’s no secret that Russel Crow was offered the role, but he turned it down and recommended his friend, Hugh Jackman instead. At the time Jackman wasn’t all that well known, and he usually performed in musicals. It sounded like an odd choice. Dougray Scott was also in talks for the role and even considered appearing in a sequel, but dropped out when filming conflicted with Mission Impossible 2. Sorry Scott, but X-Men would have been the better choice. Jackman would eventually be hired into the role three weeks into filming. And we all know how that turned out.
Apart from the inspired casting of Jackman, Patrick Stewart as Charles Xavier and Ian McKellen as Magneto are the best casting choices in the movie. They bring charisma, dramatic talent and dignity to their respective roles. Famke Janssen as Jean Grey is also a fairly good choice, even if she didn’t get to start showing off until X2. Anna Paquin as Rogue is yet another strong choice, bringing the dramatic side of her role in the movie brilliantly. And Rebecca Ramojn-Stamos is awesome as Mystique, with just the right balance of intensity and playfulness for the mutant terrorist.
With that said, the casting isn’t perfect. They chose Halley Berry as Storm. By no means am I saying Berry is a bad actress – she’s got a fair amount of dramatic talent who is also decent at humour. There’s a reason she’s still the only black woman to win the Academy Award for best actress. But here’s the thing – she completely lacks charisma, and Storm is all about charisma. She’s got a big, proud personality. Throughout Berry’s entire run as Storm, she comes across as more cute and passive than anything else. There are plenty of black actresses out there with a lot of charisma – and a better African accent too.
But that’s more than enough about the movie’s backstory. X-Men ended up a massive success, earning $296 million on a $75 million budget. It’s rightfully recognized as the movie that revitalized the superhero subgenre. But with all that said, I can’t help but feel that it hasn’t aged well, and I’m not just referring to the cheap looking special effects.
First though, let’s talk about what works in this movie. As everyone knows by now, Jackman is fantastic as Wolverine. He shows a huge range of emotions, he plays the physicality of an animalistic mutant with near perfection from the start. The only problems are that he kept getting bigger as his run on the role went on, which causes some continuity problems, and that some of the later movies focus too much on him. The opening scene showing Magneto’s experience in the concentration camps is not only haunting in all the right ways, but it perfectly explains his motivations. The movie discusses his fears more in the movie, but Singer is smart enough to let that moment speak for itself. He never hammers Magneto’s motivations over your head like some directors would do.
Although Rogue’s personality is very different from the comics (she started off as a member of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants), she’s very well handled in this movie. Her role is kind of a split between Kitty Pryde and Jubilee, in that she quickly develops a father/daughter kind of relationship with Wolverine (like Jubilee), while the X-Men take her in after a troublesome situation with the enemy (like Kitty Pryde). She’s also involved with a bit of a plot twist that’s very well handled.
Despite the movie’s relatively limited budget, it does a pretty decent job at action. The fight scene on Liberty Island is made up of several smaller fights, like a kind of epic duel between Wolverine and Mystique, and Toad being turned into a legitimate threat. That’s one change from the comics that I’m perfectly fine with. The subway fight, and the subsequent standoff between Xavier and Magneto, both feel very intense.
And then there’s the core theme of the X-Men franchise. In the X-Men, mutants are born with special abilities, and they’re hated and feared by humans as a result. It’s long established itself as an excellent allegory for all sorts of unjust discrimination, and how that causes people to get desperate. Extremists like Magneto who believe a race war is on the horizon really don’t help public perception. The X-Men on the other hand dedicate their lives to protecting humanity from mutants that would do them harm, while also protecting other mutants from humans who want to exterminate them. This movie doesn’t go too deep into the themes, but it doesn’t shy away from them either. For a first X-Men movie, that’s probably the best way to go.
With all that said, this movie is definitely not without problems beyond Storm’s complete lack of charisma. I don’t know how true this is, but I’ve read stories that the cast were not allowed to read X-Men comics on set. When one learns how many major changes there are, you can understand why that’s the case if it were true. For example, Wolverine and Sabretooth don’t seem to recognize each other at all in the movie, despite their famous rivalry in the comics. Cyclops is just boring in this movie. Sure, he’s a straight man in the comics, but he gets really hardcore when he’s angry, and he does have a lighter side from time to time. That balance would have made him a much better character for the movies, and he is handled better in X-Men: Apocalypse.
And there’s also the consistent problem with the X-Men movies Americanizing the franchise. We’ll get more into that when we get to X-Men: First Class since that’s the worst offender, but it’s worth mentioning here. The X-Men comics have a whole bunch of character from around the world, and that alone is a huge part of the tolerance aspect of the franchise’s themes. By turning all of these foreigners into Americans, like the formerly Australian Pyro and the very Russian Colossus (in X2), they partially fail at the franchise’s core message. But like I said, I’ll be getting into that more with X-Men: First Class.
The story is also kind of weird. Magneto’s plan is to use a device that taps into his powers to turn humans into mutants. He actually does this on a senator pushing the Mutant Registration Act in hopes to help him understand the prejudice all mutants face. Even if the machine didn’t kill the senator, which it did, this wouldn’t help humans fear mutants less – it would make humans in general fear them more. And depending on how certain country’s laws feel about mutants, it could end up getting a bunch of politicians executed. Yeah, the comics do go that far at times.
It’s just a very strange concept that isn’t explained all that well. Of course with a movie that’s less than 2 hours long there isn’t much room for an explanation, but still. I don’t know if I can properly explain it, but the plot never worked all that well for me even when I watched this movie the first time.
I get why a lot of people like this movie, but it was never my favourite of the X-Men movies. It soundtrack is mediocre, with a couple decent themes mixed with forgettable tunes that just sound weird. Some of the dialogue is cringe-worthy, like Storm’s “struck by lightning” line. Everything about the movie feels small, and while that works for a Wolverine solo movie, it doesn’t work as well for a superhero team. But X-Men did revitalize an industry, and its sequel is a big part of why I eventually got into comics in the first place. X-Men did get a lot of things right and that’s enough to at least make this worth a watch for fans of the genre.
Next up is the first X-Men movie I saw, X2: X-Men United. After that, it’s X-Men 3: The Last Stand, followed by the most universally hated X-Men Movie, X-Men Origins: Wolverine. I haven’t seen either of the latter two in years, and I’m particularly dreading Wolverine.